Vive le Cirque

Performance art soars to new heights under the blue-and-yellow grand chapiteau

You'd think Cirque du Soleil's dauntless artistes were superhuman.

That is unless you witnessed the heart-stopping finale during this past Friday's opening-night performance of Varekai and the gymnast who painfully missed his landing. Watching paramedics rush toward his motionless body magically unmasked the 56-strong troupe for what they really are: mere mortals.

They falter so rarely that we're bewitched by their athletic wizardry. But they're not invincible. And that makes this two-hour display of daredevil acrobatics, which is showing through February 26 at Bicentennial Park, even more captivating, not to mention courageous, because the acts are performed sans safety nets.

Varekai brims with mesmerizing stunts and wildly 
creative costumes
Jonathan Postal
Varekai brims with mesmerizing stunts and wildly creative costumes

Details

Written and directed by Dominic Champagne; creative director, Andrew Watson; sets, Stéphane Roy; costumes, Eiko Ishioka; composer, Violaine Corradi; choreography, Michael Montanaro and Bill Shannon; lighting, Nol van Genuchten; sound, FranÁois Bergeron; projections, Francis Laporte. Through February 26. 1-800-678-5440; www.cirquedusoleil.c om
Bicentennial Park, 1075 Biscayne Blvd, Miami

"There's no stand-in, because everything they do is so unique," explains Chantal Blanchard, Varekai's publicist. "If someone is sick, then the act is totally replaced by a back-up act that's different, but at the same level. If it's an ensemble act, they simply rework it."

And rework they did this past Friday. Effortlessly.

Within seconds of the injured athlete leaving the stage to a standing ovation, the seven-piece band returned to hypnotizing the stunned audience with a sensually haunting score and pounding world music. And the team of Russian and Ukrainian gymnasts resumed its stupefying stunts onstage — using a pair of seesaw-style swings to catapult members into mammoth sheets of suspended canvas or to vault onto one another's shoulders.

"All the acts are breathtaking," Blanchard crows of the Quebec-based circus troupe. "They put you at the edge of your seat. It's not something you can describe. You have to come and see it to get the feel of it."

Founder Guy Laliberté first pitched the Cirque tent almost 22 years ago. Three years later he premiered his vision in the United States with a show called We Reinvent the Circus. Since then, this daringly inventive Canadian company has evolved from a funky band of street performers into a globally renowned circus — and a half-billion-dollar empire — famous for its parade of contortionists, clowns, trapeze artists, jugglers, strongmen, acrobats, and other acts too eccentric to label.

Laliberté's company boasts six touring shows, in addition to five permanently anchored in Las Vegas and Orlando. A sixth is being considered for Miami Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater.

Although the latest touring production doesn't veer far from its predecessors, it is an endorphin extravaganza: 120 minutes of physical action peppered with a smattering of comedy and magic.

The international cast and crew, whose professional lives were chronicled in the Bravo TV network's reality program Cirque du Soleil: Fire Within, hail from fourteen different nations. They have delivered the Cirque experience to more than 1300 audiences since Varekai's 2002 creation.

Varekai — meaning "wherever" in the Gypsies' Romany language — brings to Miami a new, ethereal piece written and directed by Dominic Champagne. The show is loosely based on the Greek myth of Icarus — the boy who defied gravity — and plays out like an abstract tribute.

The action in this dazzling blend of story, movement, and design takes place in a dreamlike narrative that ventures deep into the heart of a surreal, enchanted forest inhabited by a slew of absurd, beautiful, comical, and downright goofy characters. Though not a leaf is in sight, designer Stephane Roy's striking set features tens of tall swaying poles that evoke an eerie forest.

Their feet planted firmly in midair, several of the acts repeatedly touch on the human fascination with flight, beginning with Icarus and continuing to hot-air balloons and birds.

One of the most notable stunts is performed by Great Britain's Andrew and Kevin Atherton, who, suspended by their wrists, soar gracefully through the night sky and over the crowd like floating strap-hangers. The duo delivers a synchronized display of precision and power. Equally spellbinding is Russia's Anton Chelnokov's Icarus solo act, in which the only safety feature is a flimsy-looking piece of cloth he uses to wrap and unwrap himself while dangling precariously high above the sea of upturned heads. Then there's the daring display of trapeze prowess that raises the bar on wonder from four young women who dance some 50-feet above the ground with neither restraint nor anything to catch them should they falter.

But nothing more aptly demonstrates the human body's physical potential than Irina Naumenko's second-act set. The Russian contorts and twists her body like a Twizzlers chew while balancing — often upside down and with one hand — on a narrow metal rod.

Varekai is not without a hint of humor. England's Joanna Holden and Australia's Steven Bishop fall drastically short of laughs with a been-there-done-that bit of audience participation in the show's first half. But they entertain during the second act, when, playing a cheesy-looking French songster, Bishop hilariously chases an errant spotlight around the tent to the tune of "Ne Me Quitte Pas."

As much a part of the Cirque du Soleil experience as the acts are Eiko Ishioka's wildly creative costumes. Illuminated by a dazzling display of lights that is almost a show in itself, the explosive shades of green, red, yellow, and blue fill the stage with dark and sinister finned and feathered creatures. Some of her creations evoke Salvador Dali; others are more akin to Teletubbies or other childlike cartoon characters.

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